Ex-Yemeni president Saleh was killed after changing sides yet again. A leader with wide tribal influence, it's not clear who can now take his place.
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an occasional Houthi rebel ally, was killed by the Houthis on December 4.
Saleh’s forces were openly allied with the Iranian-backed Houthis until last week, when he announced a split with the group. But his switch did not happen overnight, nor was it the first time he'd changed sides.
“Let's not forget, he was an ally of Saudi Arabia for very, very long time when he was president and he was an enemy of Houthis and he was in war with them,” Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told TRT World.
Saleh stepped down and handed power to his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2012, after months of protests against him.
Being a member of Zayidi sect of Shia Islam as Houthis, Saleh fled to Iran’s long-term rival Saudi Arabia, but eventually returned to Sanaa, and allied himself with the Houthis as they grew in strength to eventually take control of the capital, Sanaa in 2014.
But this time, the bloc that Saleh decided to abandon realised what he was up to, during their three-year alliance. The Iranian-backed Houthis had been monitoring him closely for couple of months before he publicly split from the group.
According to Al Jazeera, he had been negotiating with the Houthi rebels the night before he was killed, but didn’t accept the Houthis' last-minute deal. He offered to remain under house arrest in exchange for ending the fighting, and leave the control of Sanaa and large expanses of Yemeni territory to the Houtis.
“If Saudi Arabia and UAE (United Arab Emirates) told Saleh that they would bring him back in power, and the power who supports both Saudi Arabia and UAE, Trump administration, promised him so, that could be the reason why he decided to change his side,” Hakkı Uygur of Iran Research Center told TRT World.
Iran had been helping the rise of the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been supporting the Riyadh-based president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi against the rebels, as the brutal war in Yemen raged on for almost for three years.
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen three years ago with air strikes, under the guise of fighting against the Houthis, but couldn’t manage to drive the Houthis out of from the capital despite intense bombing, with devastating consequences on the civilian population. Saleh's withdrawal of support for the Houthis caused a shift in the balance of power. So he was assassinated after 33 years of power in Yemen.
“For sure that Saleh’s killing was an intimidation from Iran. Saleh was trying to camp against Iran with UAE’s support. So it is a victory for Iran in the short term. But if UAE and Saudi Arabia can use it against Iran, Iran might get harmed by death of Saleh (in future),” Uygur told TRT World.
“It is for certain that the Houthi-Iran effect is not something to be eradicated easily. The (Houthi) attacks in the UAE are showing that. It might even be the new Syria, the clashes are not Syria-centered but proxy war in Yemen might escalate even more," he said.
For Aboueldahab, the assassination will mean more bloodshed in Yemen, with the Saudi-led coalition conducting air strikes and the rival groups clashing, in the war that “no one is winning.”
“We will be seeing a continuation of the bloodshed and very intense fighting not just in Sanaa that [but] in other places in Yemen as well,” she says.
“As we have seen in the last 24 hours, the Houthis are not going to go down without a fight.”
Who’s going to lead Saleh’s party?
“Unfortunately I don’t see any unified statements coming out of Gulf countries on Yemen and in the absence of any liable leader to take the place of Saleh, not that he was a tribal leader to begin with, there is a lot of conspiracy still,“ Aboueldahab says.
Even though removed from power, Saleh never lost the loyalty of ex-Yemeni armed leaders and armed tribes, and his impact on them continued. But after his death, the future of the groups gathered around him is uncertain.
“Divisions in Saleh's bloc might follow Saleh’s death ... It is not clear who is going to take the lead for Saleh's forces. Maybe his son, or someone else. depends how Iran's relation is with these groups in Yemen,” says Uygur.
“We also don't know whether Saleh took his decision to shift his stance with all the groups around him, or couple of people around him. One part from his (supporters) might want to unite with Saudi while the other might want to stay with Houthis.”
Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, a senior military commander, was also killed during clashes with the Houthis, along with other senior commanders, Saleh’s party said on Tuesday. Saleh’s exiled son in the UAE, Ahmed Ali Saleh is now widely seen as Saleh’s party’s last remaining chance to gain back influence in Yemen. He vowed on Tuesday to lead a campaign against the Houthis – the rebels who were both his father’s ally and enemy in his 75-year lifespan.
Aboueldahab said this was how Saleh conducted his politics in Yemen’s multi-sided proxy war –shifting alliances when he was on the losing side.
“Perhaps [shifting alliances] what made him survive almost four decades,” she says. “But it was also what resulted in his demise.”
Now it’s not clear if the person who takes Saleh's place will be following in his footsteps.